One or two of you have been asking me to put up the texts of some of my reviews of authors included in the poetry section of our course. So here they are, without significant revisions or afterthoughts, as they appeared in (respectively) Landfall, brief and JAAM:
The Need to Gather Stones
Geoff Cochrane, 84-484. Wellington: VUP, 2007. ISBN 9780 86473 5584, 87 pages, RRP $25.
Fiona Farrell, The Pop-Up Book of Invasions. Auckland: AUP, 2007. ISBN 978 1 86940 388 1, 104 pages, RRP $25.
‘Four things are required by every work of art: a Place, and a Time, an Author, and a Cause of Invention.’ – The Speckled Book
And he’s feeling teetery and predisposed, and he feels it in the air like a fuzzy pastel buzz: the need to gather tools and summon energies, the need to try to start a new book. The need to gather stones and start again.
The first quote is from Fiona Farrell’s new book The Pop-Up Book of Invasions, written while she held the inaugural Rathcoola Writers’ Residency in County Cork, Ireland, in 2006. The second comes from Geoff Cochrane’s new poetry collection, 84-484, written (to all appearances) as he wandered around his old haunts in Wellington and, especially, Island Bay.
The two books are very different. So different, in fact, that it’s staggering that two writers of roughly the same generation could have such diverse outlooks and personae. “Pain distilled” was the description applied to Cochrane’s work in the Oxford Companion to NZ Literature. Farrell, on the other hand, paints herself here as a relaxed, somewhat garrulous travel companion, effortlessly at home with the craic, the pleasant meanderings of Irish life and culture.
Home & Abroad, then – pain / pleasure – male / female. A set of facile dichotomies could easily be established between these two poets’ latest projects, but I’m not sure that they would get us much nearer to understanding the essence of either book. It would be easy to argue that they were mutually exclusive. I prefer to see them as complementary: each supplying something the other lacks.
Let’s begin with Fiona Farrell. The most immediately striking thing about her book is the extensive body of notes included at the back. Farrell comments engagingly (and a little disingenuously?):
Poems should stand for themselves – and I hope these do – but when I go to readings I like the asides, just as I like the footnotes in books and the marginal scribblings of an irritable scribe.
Most of the time, I’d have to say that I couldn’t agree less. When I go to readings I like people to get to the point, read out the poem straight away, leave out all the lengthy explications altogether. So, as you can imagine, I came to these notes full of incipient disapproval. Only to be won over totally. The little comment about the “marginal scribblings of an irritable scribe” is a case in point.
In her introduction Farrell expounds on her choice of title, talking of the original Book of Invasions, “a compilation of eleven manuscripts describing the discovery of Ireland following the Creation and the Flood.”
The book is written in vellum by several hands, notably by a scribe called Muirges MacPaidin who grumbles in the margins that the light he is working in is bad or that he has lost the piece of pumice he uses to smooth the vellum or that the ruler he has been given to line the page is too thin. He died, probably of irritation, in 1543.
A more determined and driven author might have had no space for Muirges MacPaidin. But he would be quite a loss, I’d have to say. Especially as he’s clearly a model for Farrell herself in her marginal musings on so many evocatively (and somewhat absurdly) named texts: The Book of the Dun Cow, The Speckled Book, The Battler, The Yellow Book, The Black Book, even the Book of Kells …
But do the poems suffer from our growing need to turn to the back, check out the commentary before one can come to terms with the text itself? In some cases, I’d have to say, the back of the book does begin to overshadow the front. “The Way of the Dishes,” for instance, meant little to me until I’d read the notes. After which it fell perfectly into place.
And yet so many of the poems do stand so perfectly, so definitively, “for themselves,” that I’d prefer to see this as an outline rather than a critique of her method. The idea of a book which combines to form a complex whole, like a tessellated pavement or Byzantine mosaic, surely deserves ungrudging admiration.
Which poems would I single out as freestanding compositions? Well, somewhat surprisingly, given the author’s own reservations (mainly over her lack of Irish), I think her translation of “The Lament of the Nun of Beare” an absolute delight:
Bony my hands now
that once touched
Too bony to rise over
sweet boys again!
There’s a strange, syncopated energy in these irregular stanzas:
I was wanton in youth
and I’m glad I was bold!
If I’d been more cautious
I’d still sit here: old
in my ancient cloak –
when the bare hills’ covering
is the fine icy cloak
flung down by the King.
In her own voice, too, there are some triumphant pieces here: “Genealogy,” for example, which cries out to be quoted in full, flowing as it does from the two dismissive quotes about the Irish at the poem’s head: “a ready-made nucleus of degradation and disorder’ (Carlyle); “ a tribe of squalid apes” (Froude):
Vermin begat Squalor
who married the fourth son of
Hunger who fathered the Pig-
child and the Rat-daughter who
mothered Filth who bore
Raggy Mary who wed an
Empty Glass who was the
son of not-enough-land whose
wife was Dull Superstition …
There’s a certain kind of verse which arises from one more residency in one more evocative spot. This is not it. Farrell’s immigration has clearly been pricked and energised by her six months away from Otanerito, where the previous owners “spelled out ‘Long Bay’ in daffodils across the steep hillside. The flowers come up every spring, growing more blurred and chaotic by the year as the plants multiply.”
What more perfect image for this whole iconography of assimilation and invasion? Like the daffodils, when one closes Farrell’s book one’s abiding impression is of a whole rather than a collection of disparate pieces: “It’s hard to make out the individual letters now.”
Geoff Cochrane’s 84-484, one has to say, lacks the unity and focus of The Pop-Up Book of Invasions. It also lacks Farrell’s light tone and engaging delivery. Cochrane’s is a grimmer, more existential enterprise – part of an ongoing project running through his last few books of poems from VUP.
In fact, if one wanted an international analogue for the demands Cochrane makes of his reader, one would have to look to a poet like grim old Peter Reading: the sudden shifts of register, the refusal to explicate a pattern once it’s been formed.
I have been to Wellington, and to Island Bay (to Ireland, for that matter – even to County Cork); reading Geoff Cochrane, though, I begin to wonder if I’ve ever been to me … The central title piece of the book, “84-484,” begins in an offhand manner by recalling that “84-484 was my grandparents’ telephone number in the 1950s. Absent from my head for donkey’s years, it made its return last night as I was watching Antiques Roadshow.”
My parents and myself
lived with my father’s parents.
Oh, no, I thought – not another genealogy poem ...
I remember Eileen’s sewing patterns,
Percy’s pink Free Lances,
the marzipan mice and Napoleon cake
of my fifth or sixth birthday.
Wait a minute, though – as the finely judged details of a Lowell-esque life-study begin to appear:
If and when it suits me,
I can also recall breaking a window,
poohing wickedly on the wicker chair in the shed,
slicing my finger open with a razor blade.
(The neat white tick of the scar
is still quite visible.)
Now the true form of the poem comes into focus, the inimitable lines of a Cochrane original – “poohing wickedly on the wicker chair …” – the almost compulsive honesty of shameful recollections most of us would be happy to suppress.
And so it goes on. Because, like Farrell, Cochrane too is a novelist. In a very different vein, admittedly, but with the same finely-honed skills of pacing and cumulative detail. We learn more about his grandparents; then, as his grandfather Percy drops out of the picture, more and more about the “troubled and troubling and troublesome” Eileen: “An ageing Ophelia determined to remain dismayed by sex.”
Percy had been dead for seven or eight years, but he woke me up one night by trying to strangle me …
Eileen had ceased to sleep,. but we rubbed along together like a couple of shrewd old crooks. I’d come home boozed in the wee hours and she’d let me in without protest. …
Odours of dripping and gas. A stove of Transylvanian blackness. Stubby flames of turquoise and cerise.
“In the end, of course, the cops took an interest.” But even that wasn’t quite the end, one more scene remains, from journey’s end, the old people’s home Day Room:
Eileen waits until her daughter is talking to a nurse, then turns to me and winks. “The next time you visit, bring a little car and I’ll come away with you!”
But I have no home to take her to. No car, no flat, no money. “I’ll see what I can do,” I say. While smiling a bum’s ambiguous, impotent smile.
It’s a lacerating journey, this one, through distant hells of memory. Cochrane spares himself nothing – one reason why we forgive him such harsh, accurate judgements on others. But how is this different from any other slice-of-life realistic short story? Cochrane’s unerring sense of language illuminates the whole with strange flashes of manic, electric brilliance: that “bum’s ambiguous, impotent smile,” the white-haired heads that “tip and loll.”
In one sense, then, Cochrane’s poetic has got looser, more inclusive over the years. His sense of form has enlarged to include short stories, “Worksheet” poems, haiku-like images in the same kaleidoscopic mix. His sense of style has got ever more acute and deadly, though. He’s a risk-taker, noting anything and everything which might contribute to a poem, then leaving us questioning what the poem actually was.
The ambiguous hero of “How it Begins:” Ray Green, 48, “the unembarrassed author of four rectangular novels of modest thickness,” is a little younger than his creator, the – hopefully proud, rather than simply “unembarrassed” – author of two novels, two books of short stories and ten poetry collections , but he appears to have a similar philosophy of life: “All you can do is tend your own patch, order and illuminate your own little corner of the world.”
We used to use amphetamines ourselves, back in the seventies, but with this difference: we didn’t know we were meant to get tooled-up and riot, raid banks and slay pizza-delivery boys.
Cochrane’s is a poetry of survival – a report on the human condition from one of its furthest outposts, bulletins from the barricades of the inner-city.
It is, admittedly, a far harsher voice than Farrell’s, with fewer solutions and more hard questions. And yet what I admire about both is the ability to include the violence and disorder of our past and present without being choked into silence.
Farrell talks of the potato famine and its aftermath, the Irish hegira, with the grace of a distant descendant. Yet she’s well aware of the dangers of pure evocation:
Then the poet comes and / sees in the flop of failure / the outlines of some old / hero whom another poet / made from grunt and stab / on some muddy hill.
Cochrane puts it more simply: “The need to gather stones and start again.”
- Jack Ross, Landfall 214 (2007): 175-79.